The Shasta Indians are a Native American tribe who, prior to contact with Caucasian miners in the mid-1800s, were the prevalent population in northern California and southern Oregon. They lived in structures made of wood and packed dirt that featured partial basements. Organized into small villages with headmen, or chiefs, as leaders, the Shasta were unlike many other Native American nations because they had no strong, central tribal leadership. Their food — primarily acorns, salmon, deer, elk, bear, and pine nuts — was usually shared among all in the community.
The Shasta Indians suffered a severe population decline as early American settlers moved west, seeking gold in the mountains of California in the mid-1800s. Although the numbers of Shasta people were then reduced almost to extinction, today, it is estimated that between 2,000 to 4,000 descendants of the Shasta Indians survive. Their languages, however, have all but died out — with only one speaker of Shasta recorded in the 1994 United States census.
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Historically, the Shasta Indians worked together to provide for their village, as was often the case with other Native American tribes. Typically, men fished and hunted for food, while women gathered many food staples, such as nuts. Although the men were often out seeking prey, they would help gather some items, like acorns, when they were ready for harvest.
Shasta Indians had a monetary system that used dentalia shells as currency. Other goods that had trade value were woodpecker scalps, deer skins, and beads. It was often up to the headman to determine payment amounts and to settle any village disputes, which could also be done with these forms of currency.
Coming of age customs were particularly important to the Shasta Indians. Both males and females would have their ears pierced to signify this important milestone. Rituals for girls who reached the coming of age milestone were generally much more involved.
When a young woman reached the time of her first menstrual cycle, she would live secluded in a hut known as a wapsahuumma, which was constructed specifically for this ritual and child birthing purposes. The young woman would remain there for eight to ten days. During this time she would be allowed very little sleep and would wear a mask made of blue jay feathers. She would dance and sing, shaking a rattle made from a deer hoof; if she tired another woman would take over until she was done resting. After two more menstrual cycles spent observing similar traditions, the young woman would be ready to marry.
Young Shasta men would go on a vision quest in the mountains. This was supposed to improve the young man's hunting, fishing, and gambling skills. Such quests could be repeated throughout a Shasta male's lifetime.
Shasta Indian marriages often took place between villages, to prevent intermarriage within a family. Typically, the bride would leave her village and move to her husband's community, learning his language and customs. A bride price was set before the marriage, and this also determined the worth of future offspring. Consequently, it was important for the bride and her family to obtain a satisfactory bride price.
If a wife died prematurely, she was normally replaced with a sister or other close relative of the deceased bride, because the husband's family had already paid her bride price. If a wife was widowed by her husband's death, she usually married a relative of her deceased husband after a period of mourning. This bereavement time usually lasted about a year. Also, a man could divorce his wife on grounds of infertility or infidelity. If he did so, custom allowed him to take a sister of the rejected wife as his bride, or to be reimbursed the bride price.